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Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Three "Not So Obvious" Obvious Things about Virtual Worlds

A Virtual Immersive Environment is Not a Parallel Universe, It is an Alternative Reality. While it is possible to make a 3D virtual immersive environment (VIE) look exactly (or pretty darn close) to your actual office building or training room or college campus...what's the point? The real power of a virtual immersive environment is the ability to transport the learner or collaborators into an environment that is ideally suited for the learning or collaborating that needs to take place and this usually requires an altering of the spaces.

If a college class is studying the Antarctic, take a virtual field trip. If you are teaching sales representatives about an implantable medical device, take them to a virtual surgery...have them be a virtual patient. Use the virtual world to alter the normal bounds of distance and place. When designing virtual spaces, alter them to make the space little larger than normal to accommodate navigating the avatar, reconsider the roof of a building (no weather in virtual worlds), hold a class meeting in a garden or a brainstorming session to discuss crowd control in a subway. Use virtual world locations to alter time and space to feed brainstorming sessions. Alter the normal course of business in a manufacturing organization by having a production meeting in a replica of your biggest customer's plant.

Alter the frequency of interactions by building in-world templates of key locations. For example, I used to do some consulting for a large toy retailer and they created an actual replica of model store. They would bring in merchandisers and others into the actual store to look at layout and determine toy placement. This was a time consuming and expensive process and could only be done infrequently because of the expense of travel. If a virtual replica of the store existed, the merchandisers and toy manufacturers could meet every week in a virtual store to brainstorm and "walk the isles." The virtual version alters the reality of having to meet "every once in a while" in the store and creates the ability to meet more frequently in a proxy for physical store.

Virtual Immersive Environments are Not a Panacea. Virtual immersive environments do not magically align learning objectives with authentic work tasks, they do not overcome poorly designed sales training, they do not make a novice into an expert in one or two sessions. They are not magic. They are a tool. Too often when a new technology...any new technology (including Social Media) comes onto the "Learning and Development" radar, the technology gets treated as the answer for everything...until we is not.

To avoid this fate, take a careful look at the types of applications that leverage the power of virtual immersive environments and lead with those applications. Collaboration over distance, immersing someone in a realistic sales environment, prototyping activities, any activity that requires group coordination like first responder training or acting in a dangerous location like a nuclear plant or war zone or even a busy intersection. Virtual Immersive Environments make sense when the learning requires immersion in a particular environment, they don't make sense when teaching the memorization of medical terms.

You Gotta Get In To Get It. You can talk until you are blue in the face but a person who has never experienced being in a virtual world is not going to understand the advantages, disadvantages and affordances of a virtual existence unless and until they enter a virtual immersive environment. One cannot understand why he or she would want to be an avatar without the experience of being an avatar. In this case, less talk and more experience in-world is needed. Once people get into a virtual immersive environment and experience the value of an altered reality, they tend to understand why virtual worlds make sense.

Speaking until "Blue in the Face" doesn't help someone get VIEs.

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subquark said...

Indeed, virtual worlds are not a panacea for eLearning or any type of education. Merely another channel or tool to use.

My viewpoint comes from 7 years as a college professor, 10 years as an eLearning multimedia developer, 3 years owning 12 sims in Second Life and now having a private grid in Reaction Grid.

I also create video tutorials using virtual worlds as alternatives to Maya, Blender 3D, Studio 3D Max, and speak about this at conferences.

In my opinion, virtual worlds help illustrate things that would be hard otherwise (such as your Antarctica and surgery examples).

We went from teaching in the real world and drawing in the dirt with a stick (as Plato did) to using textbooks with photographs to online versions of the same.

These are wonderful tools to approximate the real world as well as explore fantastical concepts.

Thank you for the nice post.

Justin Clark-Casey (justincc) said...

Extremely interesting thoughts Karl. I agree with you entirely - I'm always amused when people simply recreate in-world classrooms in virtual environments, it seems to considerably miss the point.

What would you say are the most important things in encouraging the creation of such varied environments. Environment portability (the ability to load and save entire environments to different machines), easy environment creation, rich interactivity, graphical fidelity, etc.? I'd be particularly interested in your thoughts in the context of open-source virtual environment platforms (such as OpenSim) where anybody can host their own VE.